Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They're Off

Looking on at the entrancing encounter betwixt Bohs and Pats last weekend I was reminded of what Pat Fenlon can bring to the game in this country. Not necessarily a good thing. Of the top four sides - by this I mean Bohemians, Cork City, Drogheda United and St. Patrick's Athletic - Nutsy and Alan Matthews are the least responsible for their current squads; each is inheriting players largely in situ before their respective arrivals.

Such an important detail can often buy a besieged boss an extra few weeks in the proverbial heated seat. They may need added time to learn their new charges, let alone bed in whatever new faces that they may have added. Similar, but lesser, issues exist for Messrs. McDonnell and Doolin.

This pair have presided over the development of their squads across the last few seasons and as such are entirely responsible for their efficiencies or lack thereof. Last season, it was clear to this observer that the Drogs were title certs - this canny deduction was based upon the fact that their opponents had regressed in terms of squad depth, while the champions in waiting had maintained their strength. So it shall be written, so it shall be done.

The Louth club now find themselves under greater scrutiny than heretofore - often the target of green-eyed jibes regarding their finances - they now have to bear the intensity of competition which comes with being champions.

Being the best is a warm fuzzy feeling - apparently - and warm and fuzzy can induce sloppy and lazy. Players who are still sleeping with their league winner's medal on their pillow may be sleeping too soundly. eL Rico proclaimed on MNS - 'fairness has nothing to do with the professional game', or something along those lines. This should be pinned across the foreheads of Drogheda United's first teamers. The dream is over, the league is won; it must be won again, and opponents will make it even harder to achieve this year.

Everyone loves to say they held the champions to a draw - or beat them, even. Lazy heifers raise their game for the visit of the champs, then return to hibernation. Allied to such challenges are the improvements at the challenging clubs. As Cork City proved last night, and Shamrock Rovers before them, this will be a tough title to win in 2008.

Alan Matthews is reforming his image with the talent at his disposal in Turner's Cross - his side played a wonderful brand of football against a dour Drogs side. All that was missing was the end-product, Matthews will be given time to get this right. In contrast, Paul Doolin should not need to be experimenting to the degree that he has been.

His previous omission of Stuart Byrne came in for criticism, last night his finest player was played out of position. Why? Because he was replacing last season's finest player who had been shifted from his best position. This is dream stuff for any opposition manager. Ultimately, the visitors nailed a scoreless draw - at just about any stage in a season visiting opponents would take that scoreline at the Cross.

It was the manner of United's challenge that frustrated. Their undoubted quality was buried under a reluctance to commit players into the opposing penalty area. Shane Robinson and Olly Cahill were anonymous - think of the influence of O'Callaghan and to a lesser extent Kearney. Had they been forced to work back a little more in order to contain their opposite numbers, Drogheda would not have been under as much pressure as they were. Had Brian Shelley been urging Robinson on courtesy of his own raiding instincts it would have offered more to the tame Drogs attack.

We had a sighting of what may soon be an extinct creature on these islands - the Ibrahima Iyane Thiam - a long-legged colourful character which likes to roll about on the ground. There have been no positive signs to suggest that he can prosper on our shores. While Guy Bates was bedding in, learning the runs of those around him, his footballing intelligence was visible in the little things he managed to do. Touch, control, an awareness of what was going on around him - all of these are attributes which the one time PSG man does not appear to possess. At least he's good in the air - there has been precious little evidence to reinforce that statement.

Meanwhile Pats are playing with panache; their style in attack procuring temporary forgiveness for what may prove to be fatal defensive frailties. There has been such an influx of new talent at Inchicore that they will need time to develop the crucial understanding required for the white-hot temperatures of high-level competition. Even without the blessed artistry of Joe Ndo they have illuminated the opening stages of the 2008 season.

Things look far glummer at Dalymount Park. Nutsy has Owen Heary, Glenn Crowe and Jason Byrne in the camp - three of the alumni from his Shelbourne years. Heary's pedigree is unquestionable; his dedication likewise. I have never believed that Crowe and Byrne constitute a lethal combination. At the peak of their powers each represents a significant threat, but they have never operated well in tandem. If Crowe is at the peak of his powers, the striker keeps it well disguised. Too often he saunters through a game displaying little appetite for the events unfolding within his line of vision. The beautifully controlled volley against the Saints last Friday served only to indicate the level of his abilities; a level he rarely attains nowadays.

Jason Byrne will score goals - for Bohs to challenge seriously he will need a willing strike partner - Neale Fenn's first goal for the Gypsys may have signalled a second coming for the undoubtedly talented 'in the hole' player. Joxer Kelly has been a promising player for too long now. In fairness to the lad, he could have 2007 removed from his CV; in fairness to Bohs supporters he needs to progress significantly this term.

Bohs are a different side when Kelly is in full flight; he adds a dimension that cannot be taught - a la Pat McCourt at Derry - he has some way to go to imprint his legend upon the memories of the Bohs loyals. One player who has already managed to succeed in this task is Kevin Hunt. A veritable deity in Phibsboro, his star has waned over the last couple of seasons owing to what TV companies used to call 'circumstances beyond our control.' It was demoralising to note last Friday that Hunt has become an also-ran among central midfielders in this country.

A tireless worker, he still has a lot to offer the game but he was eclipsed by Keith Fahey who is finally letting his football do the talking - Fahey possesses an edginess which complements his skill. Fenlon's men looked pedestrian and lacking in creativity. Their successful back-four of 2007 remains intact; I must confess to knowing little about the qualities of Glenn Cronin; but Stephen Rice could have ascended to the Hunt throne with ease.

In what should be an intriguing title chase the merits of Shamrock Rovers are not to be dismissed; Derry City will upset some of the best laid plans, while Paul Cook's Rovers are capable of stealing points on their day.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Too Many Indians

What an interesting opening weekend it was. We saw the eircom League in all its three tiers of glory. On the bottom shelf we had a Cobh Ramblers side beginning their Premier Division program without last season's top scorer Davin O'Neill. Injured? No. Suspended? No. Unavailable due to work commitments? No. On holiday? Yes. No? Reportedly.

This is not a criticism of the individual concerned; rather an observation of the situation. It presents a throwback to a time soon to be past if all goes well for domestic football. 'Almost amateur' players will be a distant memory in the elite league.

On the second shelf we have the likes of Shamrock Rovers - progressive, forward thinking, but not fully professional, yet. Conveniently, for purposes of comparison, they were pitched against the side currently sitting at the summit of the highest shelf and it made for fascinating viewing.

Pat Scully has a decent squad; Paul Doolin has two. Every manager's dream may well become Doolin's nightmare as he grapples with the perverse problem of finding his best team. The Drogheda supremo's failure to succeed on this count undermined his club's kick-off last Saturday. Those of you who watched the uplifting first broadcast of MNS this week will have heard Tony O'Donoghue steal some of my thunder.

It relates to Stuey Byrne - who began the game as a bench warmer. It was evident even in the early stages that Shane Robinson should be pushed out wide and Byrne brought into the centre of midfield, where Drogs were ineffective. It took the United boss over an hour to bring Byrne on, at the expense of Paul Keegan. It should have been Richie Baker called ashore - although Ollie Cahill was equally ineffective on the left, but taking Baker off would mean two changes to an area crying out for it, while using just one sub. An increase in the hosts hold on the central area would allow Robinson greater license to attack against a full back who looked the least comfortable of Rovers' players on the day.

Doolin's tactical acumen is further brought into question by his opening substitution. With about 66 minutes played, he introduced all seventy-eight inches of Ibrahima Thiam Iyane to the game - a resonating statement of his lack of belief in his own players. The debutant was introduced for the player who up until that moment had looked Drogheda's most influential - Guy Bates.

The staff at United Park have gone to lengths in order to convince allcomers that Ibrahima offers more than the sum of his inches - his colleagues don't seem to buy into that particular spin - its too early yet for others to judge. Suffice to say it was not an impressive bow from the striker who is in trouble if aerial ability is his greatest asset. It is inevitable that once a beanpole has been introduced high balls are lofted lazily into his airspace ad nauseum. If any innocent had stumbled across the final thirty minutes or so of this game they would have struggled to believe that Drogheda United are the reigning champions. Offered only one serious attack strategy, they drowned in their lack of imagination and fully deserved to come off the field as losers.

Adam Hughes is a player whose style I admire, his first competitive outing was a forgettable one - the late looped header being his only significant intervention.

So, it's possibly a case of upwards and onwards for what will be a settled Shamrock Rovers eleven. Meanwhile Paul Doolin will have to scan his collection of suntanned pros in order to decipher his best eleven - a new kind of problem for the managers of our top shelf teams.

Finally, let's start a conversation - one where referees and the appropriate club officials make a midweek decision on who wears what. It can't be any simpler. The referee's indecision is final in these cases, so the safest call is to get the official to decide during the week. Leaving it until the vagaries of the last minute on a Friday is akin to a centre-half standing with his arm in the air waiting for an offside call to be interpreted in his favour. It cannot be left to chance and proactive action will head off any potential problems.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Moral Victories

Remember the time when Ireland's international side could lose a game and still claim a moral victory; we certainly expect more of our highest echelon nowadays. Improvements have bedded in sufficiently over the years for fans to forget about them, and expect more. This is not unfair as the international set-up is fully professional and the highest standards of preparation and organisation are the least we can demand.

Improvement is easily achieved when the journey begins from a low level of performance, and here we can recognise some of the properties of the League of Ireland. Derided and mocked into near collapse by 'fans' for almost forty years - 'fans' who could see no further than the far side of the Irish Sea- it has too often been the victim of self-inflicted wounds also. A talent bestowed in equal quantities on the parent body.

It would seem strange then that League of Ireland clubs would accept the rule of an often inept FAI in order to improve the status of the domestic divisions. Perhaps it served only to indicate how bad things really must have been in the alleyways and dark corners of administration.

So in they came, besuited now, no blazers - and they have achieved fantastic improvements in a single year. Qualified achievements however, from that previously mentioned low level. Approximately 100,000 extra supporters are reported to have come through the turnstiles, live TV coverage reached higher levels than ever before and there was no major off-field farce for the press to get their keyboards into.

Those achievements must now be filed and stored, for they are finished as achievements. They now become a platform for 2008. The ante is most definitely upped. More Club Promotion Officers will serve this season - hopefully they will increase the momentum generated by their colleagues last term. The basics being put into place off-field are allowing clubs to experience a growing confidence in themselves and in what may be possible.

Who would have believed fifteen or so years ago that we would have so many professional outfits preparing for the new season? The naysayers point to the fact that the level of spending is unsustainable and clubs are living on borrowed time - surely the kind of money being 'invested' by interested parties suggests a growing belief in the product on their part. I say 'invested' for it is taken as a given that there will be no financial return in the near future.

It was announced this week that five million euros would be fed into the domestic leagues during 2008 -covering prize money, grants, TV payments and subsidies. Small beer compared to the sums achieved in other countries but giant vats for our embryonic professionalism. It's widely accepted that we need a club to make the elusive breakthrough into the lucrative group stages of the Champions League. Only this will turn the heads of those throughout our land who are focussed on the Premiership.

We are going to have, for the first time in my memory, a highlights package (which promises to be more than just that) at a godly hour; yet another sign that the tide is rising. Such a development does not simply fall into the laps of our FAI drones - it is certainly the end product
of much toil and groundwork.

The message remains though that we cannot beat our chests and comfort ourselves with the thought that the hard work is done. The next few weeks will serve as a stark reminder that grounds need improving and filling. Upward and onward.

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